A truly beautiful early summers day was unfolding in the Potteries as we marshalled our bulky rucksacs on platform 2 at Stoke-on-Trent railway station. We were about to head north – a journey involving four trains to land us at St. Bees on the Cumbrian coast; we were about to spend a couple of weeks walking across our beloved England from west to east following Alfred Wainwright’s renowned Coast to Coast.
So, with a deep breath in: first leg – Stoke-on-Trent to Crewe; second leg – Crewe to Preston; third leg – Preston to Barrow; and finally Barrow to St. Bees. In actual fact, we alighted at Barrow, only to discover that the train for Carlisle was indeed the same one that had brought us from Preston. So, really, it was only a three-train journey.
The third leg proved very exciting, passing through Carnforth, where Brief Encounter was famously filmed. From the train, the somewhat prosaic station looked an unlikely place for a romantic tryst, even as it bathed in the North Lancashire sunshine. I note, however, that the refreshment room on the opposite platform has been restored to its 1940s glories. Not much further on, we also passed through stations redolent of my very early years: memories of blackberry picking near Silverdale, afternoon teas in grand Arnside, and caravan holidays at Grange-over-Sands.
At St. Bees, we discovered that the day had become sultry and hot; the sky remained an unbroken blue. We were carrying our bags to our first night in Cleator, some nine miles down the route; from there, they would be taken by Sherpa Vans. It was about half a mile from the station to the beach. At the sea front, we very much regretted not making arrangements for the transfer of our bags to Cleator. And so, to brighten our spirits, we bought ice creams. As tradition dictated, we both picked up a pebble from the beach, and dipped our walking boots into the azure sea.
At about half-past one, we started our walk in earnest, initially north to round St. Bees Head. At the tiny cove of Fleswick Bay, it became clear that the day was unnaturally hot, and that our route provided for little or no shade. And so, at this early juncture, we took a footpath inland to avoid The North Head of St Bees, and if you like, made a beeline for the first settlement after St. Bees – Sandwith. But this route was equally exposed to the heat (somewhere in the 26-28c range), and involved walking along private lanes dominated by dust-spewing farm vehicles. Sandwith proved to be a quiet, pretty hamlet. Its pub, The Dog & Partridge advertised the fact that it was open all hours…but for Mondays. Yes…it was shut. We lay in the shade, on the green opposite the hostelry, and cursed our luck. As often seems to be the case, mouthing profanities produced a positive result! A custodian drove up (warily eyeing up the two dishevelled creatures spoiling the rural idyll that is Sandwith) and opened up The D&P. After a shandy, and a good twenty minutes of resting our feet, we felt able to continue.
By now, it was nearly half-past four, and still very hot. The route meant that we skirted around the southern parts of Whitehaven, marching through the village of Moor Row, and dropping down into Cleator via its impressive cricket ground. This brought us to St. Leonard’s church in the centre of the village. The heat and our baggage had ground us down. We had totally run out of steam. Shamefully, we rang the Grove Court Hotel, where we were staying for the night, explained our plight and begged a lift, knowing that it was little more than half a mile away. No argument; a young girl arrived promptly and ferried us to the hotel.
Grove Court looked interesting – an old school converted into an hotel. But inside, it still retained an institutional feel. Our room was spick and span, but in the gable of the roof; in other words, like an oven in this unusually hot weather. The chap in charge confirmed that there was no air-conditioning, and didn’t give out much hope of finding a fan. Julia had the answer – have a cold shower! It certainly helped.
The evening meal was taken in the bar, which like the rest of the establishment, was bright but paradoxically drab. The starters were marvellous – a meal in themselves – spring rolls served with a crisp, tangy salad. The main courses – a curry and a stir-fry were bland and enormous.
We were ready for sleep, but our room remained uncomfortably hot. We each sat in the bath filled with cold water for a good ten minutes prior to retiring; a ritual we hadn’t undertaken before during our 37 years of marriage!